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An exploration of WWII clothing through the examination of original period photos

#1 Early War US Army Basic Field Clothing (1941-1943)

This photo taken at Chanute AAF field in April 1944 is illustrative of the typical US Army field wear of the time period. The first man on the left wears the Olive Drab One-Piece Herringbone Twill Work Suit (Federal spec. BBB-S-786, dated 19 December 1938). The second man wears the Olive Drab Field Jacket (Spec. PQD 20B, dated 17 March 1942), and underneath is the newer Special OD One-Piece Herringbone Twill Work Suit that replaced BBB-S-786. Developed in 1942, the new one-piece suit featured patch pockets, which can be detected just below the man's jacket. The third man wears the Herringbone Twill Jacket (Spec. PQD 45B, dated 2 November 1942) and Trousers (Spec. PQD 42A, dated 30 October 1942). Note the doughnut hole tack buttons13-star doughnut tack button
Pictured: 13-star doughnut hole button. This and several other types of tack buttons featuring a wreath and star design were also used to fill shortages of the usual Burst of Glory buttons.
on the jacket, an indicative feature of early, light shade, 2-piece HBT uniforms. Shortages of the typical Burst of Glory tack buttonsBurst of Glory tack button
View of the Burst of Glory tack button. This button was the most common type used on US Army class D work uniforms. It appeared from 1941 through the end of the war.
used on this type of uniform occurred during its early war production run. Several alternative types of tack buttons that featured hollow centers were used in their place. Field uniforms were manufactured in a very light shade of olive drab until 1943 when they were considerably darkened for camouflage purposes. The fourth man wears the OD Field Jacket and Herringbone Twill Trousers (Spec. 6-254). This man's field jacket appears darker in color when compared with the same type jacket being worn by the man second from the left. An official color change never occurred with the OD field jacket, as it was discontinued in 1943. This black and white photo is an excellent indicator of the great variances of color found among like items of WWII era clothing. The Army Air Forces patch is just visible on the left shoulder of his jacket. The fifth man wears the Herringbone Twill Jacket (Spec. PQD 45, dated 3 April 1941) and trousers (Spec. 6-254). This uniform was the first two-piece HBT type and replaced the denim working uniform. It was issued with a fully brimmed hat for sun protection. For warmth, all of the men wear the M-1941 Knit Wool Cap (Spec. 8-130). The three men in the middle wear standard Army issue corrective lenses.

Work and field garments were fundamental uniforms necessary for the enlisted man to complete his basic training and to later carry out the functions he was trained to do. Thus, these uniforms were mandatory issue for the enlisted man upon induction into the army. Uniform requirements were again reviewed before embarking for a theater of operations. This practice was to ensure troops had in their possession the proper types and quantity of uniforms suitable for the environment they were about to enter. Mandatory allowances for the enlisted man included one field jacket, two pairs of wool trousers, one wool knit cap, and depending on occupation either two one-piece HBT suits, or two sets of HBT jackets and trousers. In the field, HBT was generally worn as a combat uniform in hot and tropical climates, or as a protective garment in cooler temperatures. It was also the primary garment used for fatigue duty. Field jackets and wool trousers were the primary uniform worn in cooler weather. Officers were not generally required to keep articles of field clothing while serving in the zone of interior. When deployed to a theater of operations, however, the field jacket was a mandatory purchase article, and depending on the climate, the HBT one-piece or two-piece uniforms were an optional purchase.

Note the leisurely and relaxed appearance the men pictured present. In the 1941-42 period the Army Quartermaster issued many new types of specialized work and field uniforms. Many of these new issues were closely patterned after civilian designs in order to modernize the Army's image and improve morale. Once the new uniforms were standardized, the traditional wool service uniform became limited to dress and garrison use, and the blue denim working uniforms gradually disappeared. By contrast, other nation's armies continued to wear traditional woolen uniforms for both field and dress functions. Though, the WWII period saw considerable activity among the warring nations in the development of specialized field clothing, none were able to successfully develop and distribute these new types of garments in the numbers or scale the US military did. As a consequence, the GI of WWII often lacked the homogeneous appearance so strongly characteristic of military organizations.

The new look US service men took to the field during this period was largely the result of an amalgamation of several concepts. Quartermaster clothing development began to make use of advances in clothing science and technology and mix them with improved design elements to produce field uniforms that exhibited not only improved utility, but morale boosting qualities as well. For example, textiles were selected for their attributes such as durability, protectiveness, heat retention, moisture ingress and egress, and wind resistance. An improvement in comfort was achieved by the use of expansion pleats and roomier patterns. Another feature frequently designed into garments at this time was the bi-swing backBi-swing back
Bi-Swing Back - Side view of the Olive Drab Field jacket showing the pleated back known as the bi-swing back, or commercially by the name of action back. Many civilian sportswear garments of time were constructed with this feature.
. This feature utilized pleats at the rear shoulder that provided ease of movement when raising the arms or reaching. Protection against the elements and control of body temperature was improved by the use of elastic cuffs and collars, adjustment tabs at ankle and wrist openings, and waist and skirt drawstrings. Fashion elements were incorporated into designs and included the use of convertible collars, half belts, and contrasting color schemes.

The development and subsequent adoption of the Olive Drab Field JacketTwo soldiers stand side b side; on the left the wool sevice uniform is worn with leggings for field wear, and on the right the new olive drab field jacket is worn with steel helmet
A tale of change: The soldier on the left wears the woolen service uniform adapted for field wear through the use of canvas leggings and cartridge belt. The soldier on the right wears the new Olive Drab field jacket designed specifically for field use. He also wears the M-1 steel helmet. Both jacket and helmet were standardized in 1941.
in 1941 was a major step forward in the movement to develop specialized field garments. Cotton poplinCotton Poplin
Cotton Poplin (magnified) - A light to medium weight plain weave material with a corded surface. It is usually found in the 5 to 10 ounce per square yard range. The fabric has a smooth, silky, texture that is achieved by running a fine yarn in one direction with a thicker one interweaving it. In the WWII era, the US Army used this material extensively as a protective outer shell in early field garments, such as parkas, jackets, and coats. After 1943 when the army switched to sateen and oxford cloth as the primary materials for outer wear, poplin was mostly used as a shirting material.
was chosen for the jacket's outer shell because of the weave's wind resistant properties, and its ability to receive water-resistant chemical treatments.

Army Air Force personnel at Chanute Field, IL in 1944.Army Air Force personnel at Chanute Field, IL in 1944.

Chanute Field, Illinois: In this 1944 shapshot US Army Air Force personnel pose outside the barracks wearing various articles of work and field clothing. These loose fitting garments give them a relaxed and leisurley appearance. Hover on the photo for an expanded view.

To further assist in protecting against the elements, adjustment tabs were located at the cuffs and waist. The jacket's hip length and bi-swing back features were intended to allow the soldier's body a greater range of movement and comfort when engaged in field work. These where some of the key features brought to life when the first real field specific uniform was created by the Army. Over time, trouser crotch and seat areas were set lower and wider to better facilitate squatting and bending. The standard woolen service trousers were gradually redesigned with field use as their primary function where they would better compliment the new field jackets. Cotton herringbone twillHerringbone Twill
Herringbone Twill - A variation of the twill weave in which the normal elongated diagonal ridges formed by the weave switch direction creating a zigzag pattern resembling the skeleton of a herring fish. This material was used extensively by the US military during the WWII era to produce various fatigue, utility, and tropical combat uniforms.
was first adopted in 1938 for use in one-piece work uniforms due to its superior wear and shrink resistant characteristics. Later, in 1941 it was again used for the new two-piece working uniform. The evolution of the two-piece HBT uniform was rapid. In its original incarnation it was purposefully designed as a smarter, neater appearing replacement for the old denim working coat and trousers. But, as can be seen in the photo, this quickly gave way to a baggier, simplified design that emphasized pocket cargo capacity due to its adoption as a summer combat uniform. Herringbone twill work uniforms were typically fitted oversized to allow them to be worn effectively as a protective outer garment. These new field and work designs provided a definite improvement over the traditional practice of utilizing the woolen service uniform as a do all.

Fashion elements used in the newly designed uniforms of 1941-42 borrowed heavily from similar clothes in the commerical market. A good example of this can be seen in our picture by examining the man's jacket that stands furthest to the right. His jacket, the first issue herringbone twill jacket (Spec. PQD 45, dated 3 April 1941), was styled very similar to civilian blue jean jackets of the day. Notice the false box expansion pleats on the pockets; they were there purely for visual effect as can be seen by items in his right pocket not causing the pleat to expand despite the pocket's fullness. Also, notice the shirt style cuffs and darts just above them, as well as the double button waistband. Even the new burst of glory button used on this design was detailed to instill pride and promote positve morale. Few of these early fashion elements would last long, however. In fact, none of the civilian styling in the early herringbone twill jacket would survive its next major make-over, as can be seen when comparing the jacket worn by the man on the far right to the one the man in the middle is wearing. The general appearance of the Olive Drab Field Jacket was also very similar to civilian wind breakers popular at the time. Its short length, lapel collar, zippered front, slash pockets, and rear half-belt were style elements adopted directly from civilian designs. These features would not last long either; all would be dropped in the next generation field jacket as utility and combat effectiveness became crucial.

Although these uniforms were produced in enough quantity to be seen throughout the war, by the time this picture was taken in 1944 they were being replaced in favor of re-worked and improved designs, especially for front line troops. As real-world combat results were evaluated on the early war designs, changes came fast and furious. Style and fashion elements yielded in heavy deference to ergonomics. Colors were changed to enhance camouflage properties. Material characteristics such as durability, shrink resistance, composition, and weight became even more important; further improving new designs. Also, as the wartime army grew tremendously, a major driver of new designs became the conservation of materials. Non-essential features usually succumbed to the need to conserve materials in order to meet production demands. Finally, the good intentioned desire to outfit each specialized force with its own unique uniform designs led to an overabundance of clothing varieties. This practice made procurement and distribution of clothing impractical in a global war situation. Realizing this guided efforts to simplify the inventory of special uniforms by producing superior garments that could truly fill multiple roles without compromise. The Herringbone Twill uniforms shown in this photo gave way to new simplified designs with darker colors. The OD Field Jacket was replaced by the vastly improved and radically new M-1943 Field Jacket. The Knit Wool Cap, as well as many other caps of the day, gave way to the OD Cotton Field Cap with Visor.

The earlier pre-war incorporation of fashion elements into military design made for some unique and interesting clothing for an expanding Army concerned with making mass mobilization palatable to the average citizen. Ironically, these pre and early war uniforms that borrowed heavily from civilian fashions of the time later became fashion drivers themselves. Their influence on leisure and outdoor wear designs can often still be seen today. These enduring designs are, without doubt, a lasting testament to the Quartermaster Corps' pre-war effort to improve the design, comfort, and utility of army uniforms.